CLOUD CUCKOO LAND (2008)
CATALOG ESSAY, 2010
Erik Moskowitz and Amanda Trager's Cloud Cuckoo Land sets to music an experimental narrative based on a failed utopia of the same name in Aristophanes' comedy The Birds. In the latter, two earthly cofounders name their 'city in the sky' Cloudcuckooland. Set apart from humans, the city for birds floats adrift between earthly society and the heavenly home of the gods. In disrupting and intervening in the usual relation between humans and gods, the birds gain new power, becoming rulers of an authoritarian state of their own. Utopian dreams result in nothing better than a city like that from which they had hoped to escape. Interpreted as an allegory for contemporary Athenian events, the absurdist tale retains a powerful message about false hopes for freedom through isolation and self-partitioning.
In Moskowitz and Trager's Cloud Cuckoo Land, the story, which is recited and acted in part by the artists themselves, bares little resemblance to its ancient counterpart, except in the sense that a contemporary form of commune, called an "Intentional Living Community," features as the setting for this quasi-theatrical work. Here the work tells an intentionally fragmented story about a couple who have left the city to relocate in a planned community hoping for a better way of life and it is told in song. Recorded on multiple tracks, the artists' voices, mixed occasionally with others, are collapsed into a single harmony that retains within it audible hints of its multiple sources. The voice track figures as a kind of multiplicity, even as the track is the same for all characters. Each character is dubbed with this single 'communal' voice, acting to blur the identities of the characters, which in realist theater are conventionally assumed to represent individual subjectivities. This shared voice paradoxically provides the work its ethereal unity.
The setting for the action, which, in the first scene, is a bedroom and nearby kitchen, in which father and son are seen standing in front of a photographic image of a bed as though laying on it. The bed has been photographed from above, enlarged to life- size and printed onto a hanging scrim. The wife, played by Trager, is standing in an adjacent kitchen. The scrim is not just a convenient solution to the problem of a set; it immediately denaturalizes the work for viewers accustomed to the conventions of theatrical mimesis. The printed scrims created for each scene are incorporated with variations into the resulting installation, along with props such as another bed and chairs like those used in the shoot.
The community of the 'like-minded' turns out to be other than it was hoped to be. Through a narrative technique borrowed from Aristophanes-the introduction of an intruder-the story develops into a crisis that shatters the apparent peace of the planned community. Next, an incident at a party invites a commentary on the nature of art. In the midst of the action, a cut occurs as the artists are now situated in an editing suite positioned, at this moment, outside the central narrative. They appear to be searching for an appropriate form for their story just as ancient Greek community founders sought one for their polis. Cut back to the party and the two are back in character, observed by a town elder played by video artist Joan Jonas. Violence erupts as the character played by Trager confronts the intruder ("Booker") played by Moskowitz on the topic of his artistic choices. The scene is not really an agon or debate, but is rather one-sided, resulting in unleashed frustration and a slap across the face.
The search for a proper aesthetic form is no doubt a crucial question for any artist. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, this episode echoes an earlier work entitled Soft Version (2006), where the computer once again provides the leitmotif, as editing software on a computer monitor presents two frozen clips of Trager, while she and Moskowitz peer at it and lip sync their lines to the synchronized 'multi-voice.' At its base their collaborations take the material form of digital video. As a kind of non-form, it has ramifications for the meaning of their work, such as the effect of their voice track. Technology has never had more impact on art than has today. Digitization has the potential to affect all aspects of daily lives, from being used in looking after household finances, to education and entertainment; Life has now at its base a truly dematerialized reality. This has its downsides too, as digital tools of abuse are as efficacious as tools for new artistic forms. When employed in a theatrical setting, the effect of digial media [the effect of mediatization and digitalization} has unleashed new possibilities. Prime examples include the unique theater of New York's The Wooster Group, two productions by which, Nayatt School and Sakonnet Point, featured the theatrical debut of Moskowitz as a youngster.
Many of the group's most important works include an embrace of multiple voices, on multiple formats-video, audio, live and recorded. They are often simultaneously spoken or presented on audio loops. A recent production of Hamlet (2007) took as inspiration and source a film of Richard Burton performing Hamlet on Broadway in 1964 made for screening in select cinemas.In the Wooster Group's Hamlet, fragments of the original source are played on screen behind the players. Overhead the same fragments of this original source are played on monitors such that only those on stage can see it. The video has been reedited to include jump cuts and fast-forwards, two aspects of cinematic and video temporality not native to the theatre. Characters on stage recite the original Shakespeare, act their parts, but all staging and on-stage movement become distanced from any director's expressive interpretation as movements are dictated by an actual mimesis, performed live, of the newly fragmented and reedited video footage including all of its jerks, jumps and rapid shifts in tempo. Each of the cast becomes ventriloquists of motion, a possibility brought about by cinematic and televisual time, one that also alters contemporary perception and therefore, as is clearly espoused by The Wooster Group, historical forms. Not unlike how Cloud Cuckoo Land reasserts the pertinence of Greek comedy.
Trager and Moskowitz, though not directly influenced by the Wooster Group, similarly experiment with the form of their storytelling, and in Cloud Cuckoo Land, this experimentation although directed at all aspects of the production, pays specific attention to the voice, here, taking the form of a digitally layered 'multi-voice.' Its choral dialogue is experienced as a form of ventriloquism because in Cloud Cuckoo Land each character speaks the words of others. This characteristic reflects a kind of 'dialogic penetration,' to borrow from Russian literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, whose first major book Problems of Dostoyevsky's Poetics was not translated or published in the West until the late 1960s. Bakhtin's concepts of the 'polyphonic novel,' the invention, of which he ascribes to Dostoyevsky, resonated deeply with Western, especially French, intelligentsia around the time of the May '68 student revolts (especially with Julia Kristeva who may have been one of the first to read Bakhtin for
its potential contemporary political implications). At this time, many in Western Europe were eager to rework Marxist cultural analysis into one that was not authoritarian as in the contemporary Soviet example. And, although Bakhtin's philosophy is not really Marxist, but rather a combination of theology and phenomenology, it does not contradict Marxist readings. What it does is outline the difference between a monologic work of art or literature through which the author's omniscient voice is spoken through all characters, and the polyphonic, where each character speaks to others from her own 'I-position.' The "I-position" of another is interpreted from her own unified world view. This of course provides each character at least two voices, her own and that ascribed to she from others, that is if we ignore the voice now lingering in the background, belonging to the author. This revelatory idea, discovered in what Bakhtin considers to be the first modern novel, found fertile ground in the France of the late sixties, as monological thought was rejected and themes such as glossolalia and difference were embraced by the, at times, Maoist leading proponents of post-structuralism.
A prime concern oftentimes left out of discussions and/or applications of Bakhtin's striking ideas is the fact that his literary theory presupposed a social philosophy. For each character to speak both in her own voice from her unique point of view, while anticipating the response of the other from her own understanding of the other's point of view, which does not necessarily correspond to that other's point of view-for this to be possible requires a community. Interestingly, it is this 1960s-era idea of community that began to take hold all over the Western world as an utopian ideal. Whether Marxist or not, the polyphonic cannot be owned by any particular ideology, yet as an artist aspiration, at its core, it evinces a deep respect for others and knowledge of one's ontological limits, which is much more than admirable.
Since the 1960s, Richard Burton was known as "The Voice." His deep timbre and Welsh accent resonates in one's aural cavities. Whether playing Hamlet or the embattled George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf, his tone transcends his Shakespearian training, becoming an early form of aural branding. As "The Voice," Burton gave the entertainment industry what it both needs and aspires to: the logic of the known, differentiated to minuscule degrees, like costume changes, let's say. The Voice takes precisely the form of the 21st Century monological discourse required to sell. It can be easily anticipated and is rewarded through repetition, made knowable in advance and hence rendered consumable. For each production of Hamlet on stage or in film, many, many voices are suppressed to make this one voice recognizable. For Moskowitz and Trager it would seem suppression is not their theme. While the back story of Cloud Cuckoo Land is failed utopias and the self-serving ends for which they have been sought, their historicized reinterpretation tells us something more complex. In terms applied to the literature, Bakhtin called the monologic a "solipsistic separation." It seems for Moskowitz and Trager even community-minded aspirations, an admirable notion for Bakhtin, can take on a far too monological dimension.
This essay will appear in a forthcoming catalog currently being produced with a grant from free103point9.